Introduction to the Revelation
There are four primary theories concerning how to understand the Revelation. The preterist theory holds that the Revelation symbolically refers to events that took place around the time of its writing, and the early Christians understood the symbolism because they lived those events. The historical theory is similar, except that the events have happened throughout church history, rather than just during the first century.
Both of these theories are plagued with the problem that none of the events in the Revelation have actually happened, even symbolically. There has been no demonic global ruler, no cataclysmic judgments, no return of Christ, and no utopian kingdom (although some who hold these views do acknowledge the kingdom and eternity are still future). These must be rationalized away for any theory that views the Revelation as past tense. The spiritual or idealist theory skirts this problem by arguing that the Revelation uses symbolic language to explain a spiritual reality. In other words, the “events” recorded are not and will not be real events at all.
Standing in contrast to these, the futurist theory recognizes that the Revelation is clearly identified as “prophecy” or prophetic literature (1:1, 3; 22:10, 18-19). (The Greek name, apokalypsis, means “uncovered, revealed” not “hidden, secret”). Specifically, this prophecy was given by Jesus himself to John (Revelation 1:1, 17-19; 22:16). Since the Scriptures are full of prophecies that have been fulfilled literally, the Revelation must not be considered to be figurative, symbolic, or spiritual. Instead, its interpretation must be based on the concept that these are prophecies yet to be fulfilled literally. Even this view, however, is represented by a variety of interpretations of the specific timeline and events (as will be shown in these notes).
Although the book is not necessarily chronological throughout, it does provide a concise outline of its contents. In Revelation 1:19 Jesus told John to “write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things.” What John “saw” must refer to the vision in chapter one. “What is” seems to be the then-existing churches named in chapters 2-3. Chapter four begins with the statement “after these things” (twice in Revelation 4:1 and six times throughout the rest of the book) implying that everything from that point was John’s vision of the future.
There is a great deal of imagery in John’s vision, which has led to some of the theories mentioned above. However, when we realize that much of the imagery comes from the Old Testament, the symbols tend to come into better focus. Interestingly, although the influence of the Hebrew prophets is prominent in the Revelation, it tends to come via allusions rather than direct quotes.
The Revelation begins with a blessing and ends with a curse. The blessing is upon those who read and obey the things written in the book (Revelation 1:3). The curse is upon anyone who would add to or subtract from this “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 22:18-19).
Chapter six reveals what was written in the scroll of Revelation 5:1. As each of the seven seals was broken, the scroll opened a little more in order to reveal its contents. It is likely that this scroll contains a summary description of the events and judgments that will happen throughout the seven years of Tribulation, though the seals themselves are not necessarily the specific judgments.
As Jesus slowly opened the scroll, one seal at a time, John saw something that represented what will take place. The first seal revealed a rider on a white horse, carrying a bow. This seems to represent a time of relative peace, although he is called a conqueror. Although the rider is usually identified as the Antichrist, he likely refers to the early one-world government, in which Antichrist starts as only one of the leaders. The second seal revealed a rider on a red horse. This is clearly identified as the removal of the peace that the first rider brought, probably world war. The third seal revealed a rider on a black horse. This is said to be increased food prices, a natural result of war. The fourth seal revealed two riders, Death and the Grave, on a pale horse. Lack of food leads to famine, various illnesses and diseases, and death. At this point a quarter of Earth’s population will die. These four certainly run in succession, but there is no indication how long each of them lasts. They are probably a summary representation of most, if not all, of the seven-year Tribulation period.
The fifth seal revealed souls in Heaven. These souls belong to people who had been martyred for their faith. They cannot be souls of Christian martyrs, because all Christians will have been resurrected in the Rapture, so these must be people who were martyred before or after that (Old Testament martyrs and/or Tribulation martyrs). Since the worldwide government persecution on Tribulation saints may not start until the second half of the Tribulation, the timing of this seal is difficult to determine. Additionally, their martyrdom may not have anything to do with Antichrist, as there are plenty of groups intent on killing believers that may have free rein once the Church is gone. The souls under the altar were asking for vengeance, but they were told to wait, as many more would be killed first.
The sixth seal revealed plagues that will come upon the Earth. The description of the sun, moon, and stars comes from Joel 2:31 and is either repeated or expanded upon in Revelation 8:12 and Revelation 16:8-10. Jesus also referred to them in the Olivet Discourse (see Matthew 24:29) and indicated that this would be near the end of the Tribulation. This seal also refers to major topographical changes on Earth that seem to occur throughout and near the end of the Tribulation. Whether these are all distinct judgments or this seal looks forward to the others is debated. As with the fifth seal, the exact timing of this sixth seal is difficult to determine. However, whenever it occurs, the people on Earth are well aware that this is a judgment from God, and many would rather kill themselves than have to suffer at his hand.